Provocateur of Systemic Innovation

In light of the dampening influence of established systems on innovation, it’s worthwhile to focus on what can be done in response.

We cannot get away from systems. Even if we succeed in disrupting a particular system – say the classroom model of education – we will find ourselves confined by a new structure. What is needed is the right system for a particular era or context, not a lack of systems. As history demonstrates, even revolutionaries conserve.

A hurdle must first be overcome: the intent of any system is to normalize deviation. It’s tough to be a radical in society, for example, when you have been systematized through a mortgage, car payment, and the soft influence of social norms – i.e. what it means to be successful or well-regarded. Critical commentary is difficult because when we criticize “the system” we are in essence criticizing ourselves. By our daily actions, we reinforce the existing norms. So, in most cases, it is easier to deal with the irritants of how things are, erupt with the odd rant, but still generally play by the rules that are conducive to societal integration.

An approach of acceptance and integration is fine in many instances – especially when it meets the needs of the majority. Life is far less stressful when you’re not fighting against everyone. At a certain point, however, change becomes an obligation for self-preservation. And in extreme instances, change becomes a duty in service to future generations (such as civil rights movements).

A recap of the situation: systems normalize and we are biased in supporting existing systems because they form part of our identity. But, change is needed when a substantial mismatch exists between structures in society and the external reality or dominant ideology.

Many educators – the silent majority – are not pining for change. Funding for research and national innovation goals suggest existing universities will be here for a long (long) time. Based on my experience chatting with conference attendees and interacting with faculty, a compelling argument for dramatic change in education has not been made. Sure, we see people with mobiles, we might even post to Facebook, or we might read the odd ebook, use Google Docs, but beyond that, really, how big is the change we are talking about?

Change-blindness is related to our integration with existing systems. To step into unknown and uncertain spaces is a risk-taking action. Humanity is often more concerned about preservation.

How then can a school or university innovate?

All organizations need a new position: a provocateur (or director) of systemic innovation. The role of this individual is to specifically challenge which regular organizational activities no longer make sense and to recast policies in light of the affordances of networked technology. Many organizational policies and work routines reflect the trailing ideologies of a previous generations – a different society, a different set of needs. Innovation and adaptation are in order.

Think of a university. Do we need a bookstore? Do we need professor’s “course notes” for only $45? Do we need textbooks? Do we need lecture halls? Do we need face-to-face faculty meetings? Do we need courses? What about the current research grant writing process? Does that even make sense (especially from a perspective of time/resources invested to prospect of succeeding and length of time to required by the council to reach a verdict)?

We could get into class scheduling…or student fees…or the need for new building projects…or the administrative structure of universities…faculty unions…and so on. In each instance, many opportunities for innovation exist. But, absent someone being assigned the explicit role of thinking about innovation, most of us spend our time doing our work. And the daily drubbing drives out creativity to reflect on what we could do differently, what we could do better. Which is why we need an explicit focus on innovating the system itself.

3 Responses to “Provocateur of Systemic Innovation”

  1. [...] I’ve been writing this, @tonysearl has tweeted an article that really illustrates this need for innovation in institutions, the need to drop systems that no [...]

  2. I’ve been reading this article about the future of education:

    On the second and third pages, where it talks about “Loss of human contact” and “The ABCs vs. the EFGs”, it gets in to some interesting ideas about new ways to do school. Of course, it is mainly about grade school, but some interesting ideas to chew on there.

  3. Margerit Roger says:

    With all due respect (and full agreement about the need for provocateurs in all sorts of systems that have become stale), I think there’s a difference between revolution and evolution. I think you’re not commenting on the need for change itself, but rather the speed of it. You’d prefer much faster change in the institutions that are the self-claimed keepers of formal learning. But revolution is virtually impossible in large institutions unless there’s a major uprising, and that’s unlikely to happen in part because we’re generally a numbed populace and accept what comes at us, but also because large institutions do not and cannot make big, revolutionary changes. They’re NOT nimble and responsive. And, as you say, we’re partially responsible because they’ve grown into the behemoths they are because at one time they WERE at the cutting edge and we all trotted over to them. However, using that same idea (and the notions of self-organizing systems), we’re now trotting over to new technologies, new sources of learning, new and more efficient ways of doing things. Change is already on its way. True, the needs of the majority are pointing away from educational institutions. But maybe those institutions are in the autumn of their “lives” anyway, and we’re best off just heading off in new directions that meet our needs more effectively and letting the chips fall where they may, instead of expecting change out of systems that cannot handle them.